E-text prepared by Roy Brown
AUGUSTA J. EVANS WILSON
Author of "At the Mercy of Tiberius", "St. Elmo" Etc.
"The grace of God forbid We should be overbold to lay rough hands On any man's opinion. For opinions Are, certes, venerable properties, And those which show the most decrepitude Should have the gentlest handling." VANINI
London James Nisbet & Co. Limited 21 Berners Street
"Did you tell her that Dr. Hargrove is absent?"
"I did, ma'am; but she says she will wait."
"But, Hannah, it is very uncertain when he will return, and the night is so stormy he may remain in town until to-morrow. Advise her to call again in the morning."
"I said as much at the door, but she gave me to understand she came a long way, and should not leave here without seeing the Doctor. She told the driver of the carriage to call for her in about two hours, as she did not wish to miss the railroad train."
"Where did you leave her? Not in that cold, dark parlour, I hope?"
"She sat down on one of the hall chairs, and I left her there."
"A hospitable parsonage reception! Do you wish her to freeze? Go and ask her into the library, to the fire."
As Hannah left the room, Mrs. Lindsay rose and added two sticks of oak wood to the mass of coals that glowed between the shining brass andirons; then carefully removed farther from the flame on the hearth a silver teapot and covered dish, which contained the pastor's supper.
"Walk in, madam. I promise you nobody shall interfere with you. Miss Elise, she says she wishes to see no one but the Doctor."
Hannah ushered the visitor in, and stood at the door, beckoning to her mistress, who paused irresolute, gazing curiously at the muffled form and veiled face of the stranger.
"Do not allow me to cause you any inconvenience, madam. My business is solely with Dr. Hargrove, and I do not fear the cold."
The voice of the visitor was very sweet though tremulous, and she would have retreated, but Mrs. Lindsay put her hand on the bolt of the door, partly closing it.
"Pray be seated. This room is at your disposal. Hannah, bring the tea things into the dining-room, and then you need not wait longer; I will lock the doors after my brother comes in."
With an ugly furrow of discontent between her heavy brows, Hannah obeyed, and as she renewed the fire smouldering in the dining-room, she slowly shook her grizzled head: "Many a time I have heard my father say, 'Mystery breeds misery,' and take my word for it, there is always something wrong when a woman shuns women-folks, and hunts sympathy and advice from men."
"Hush, Hannah! Charity,—charity; don't forget that you live in a parsonage, where 'sounding brass or tinkling cymbals' are not tolerated. All kinds of sorrow come here to be cured, and I fear that lady is in distress. Did you notice how her voice trembled?"
"Well, I only hope no silver will be missing to-morrow. I must make up my buckwheat, and set it to rise. Good-night, Miss Elise."
It was a tempestuous night in the latter part of January, and although the rain, which had fallen steadily all day, ceased at dark, the keen blast from the north shook the branches of the ancient trees encircling the parsonage, and dashed the drops in showers against the windows. Not a star was visible, and as the night wore on the wind increased in violence, roaring through leafless elm limbs, and whistling drearily around the corners of the old brick house, whose ivy-mantled chimneys had battled with the storms of seventy years.
The hands of the china clock on the dining-room mantlepiece pointed to nine, and Mrs. Lindsay expected to hear the clear sweet strokes of the pendulum, when other sounds startled her; the sharp, shrill bark of a dog, and impatient scratching of paws on the hall door. As she hurried forward and withdrew the inside bolt, a middle-aged man entered, followed by a bluish-grey Skye terrier.
"Peyton, what kept you so late?"
"I was called to Beechgrove to baptize Susan Moffat's only daughter. The girl died at eight o'clock, and I sat awhile with the stricken mother, trying to comfort her. Poor Susan! it is a heavy blow, for she idolized the child. Be quiet, Bioern."
Mr. Hargrove was leisurely divesting himself of his heavy overcoat, and the terrier ran up and down the hall, holding his nose high in the air, and barking furiously.
"Bioern's instincts rarely deceive him. A stranger is waiting in the library to see you. Before you go in, let me give you your supper, for you must be tired and hungry."
"Thank you, Elise, but first I must see this visitor, whose errand may be urgent."
He opened the door of the library, and entered so quietly that the occupant seemed unaware of his presence.
A figure draped in black sat before the table which was drawn close to the hearth, and the arms were crossed wearily, and the head bowed upon them. The dog barked and bounded toward her, and then she quickly rose, throwing back her veil, and eagerly advancing.
"You are the Rev. Peyton Hargrove?"
"I am. What can I do for you, madam? Pray take this rocking chair."
She motioned it away, and exclaimed:
"Can you too have forgotten me?"
A puzzled expression crossed his countenance as he gazed searchingly at her, then shook his head.
The glare of the fire, and the mellow glow of the student's lamp fell full on the pale features, whose exceeding delicacy is rarely found outside of the carved gems of the Stosch or Albani Cabinets. On camei and marble dwell the dainty moulding of the oval cheek, the airy arched tracery of the brows, the straight, slender nose, and clearly defined cleft of the rounded chin, and nature only now and then models them as a whole, in flesh. It was the lovely face of a young girl, fair as one of the Frate's heavenly visions, but blanched by some flood of sorrow that had robbed the full tender lips of bloom, and bereft the large soft brown eyes of the gilding glory of hope.
"If I ever knew, I certainly have forgotten you."
"Oh—do not say so! You must recollect me; you are the only person who can identify me. Four years ago I stood here, in this room. Try to recall me."
She came close to him, and he heard her quick and laboured breathing, and saw the convulsive quivering of her compressed lips.
"What peculiar circumstances marked my former acquaintance with you? Your voice is quite familiar, but——"
He paused, passed his hand across his eyes, and before he could complete the sentence, she exclaimed:
"Am I then so entirely changed? Did you not one May morning marry in this room Minnie Merle to Cuthbert Laurance?"
"I remember that occasion very vividly, for in opposition to my judgment I performed the ceremony; but Minnie Merle was a low-statured, dark-haired child——" again he paused, and keenly scanned the tall, slender, elegant figure, and the crimped waves of shining hair that lay like a tangled mass of gold net on the low, full, white brow.
"I was Minnie Merle. Your words of benediction made me Minnie Laurance. God—and the angels know it is my name, my lawful name,— but man denies it."
Something like a sob impeded her utterance, and the minister took her hand.
"Where is your husband? Are you widowed so early?"
"Husband—my husband? One to cherish and protect, to watch over, and love, and defend me;—if such be the duties and the tests of a husband,—oh! then indeed I have never had one! Widowed did you say? That means something holy,—sanctified by the shadow of death, and the yearning sympathy and pity of the world; a widow has the right to hug a coffin and a grave all the weary days of her lonely life, and people look tenderly on her sacred weeds. To me, widowhood would be indeed a blessing, Sir, I thought I had learned composure, self-control, but the sight of this room,—of your countenance,—even the strong breath of the violets and heliotrope there on the mantle, in the same blood-coloured Bohemian vase where they bloomed that day,—that May day,—all these bring back so overpoweringly the time that is for ever dead to me,—that I feel as if I should suffocate."
She walked to the nearest window, threw up the sash, and while she stood with the damp chill wind blowing full upon her the pastor heard a moan, such as comes from meek, dumb creatures, wrung by the throes of dissolution.
When she turned once more to the light, he saw an unnatural sparkle in the dry, lustrous, brown eyes.
"Dr. Hargrove, give me the license that was handed to you by Cuthbert Laurance."
"What value can it possess now?"
"Just now it is worth more to me than everything else in life,—more to me than my hopes of heaven."
"Mrs. Laurance, you must remember that I refused to perform the marriage ceremony, because I believed you were both entirely too young. Your grandmother who came with you assured me she was your sole guardian, and desired the marriage, and your husband, who seemed to me a mere boy, quieted my objections by producing the license, which he said exonerated me from censure, and relieved me of all responsibility. With that morning's work I have never felt fully satisfied, and though I know that any magistrate would probably have performed the ceremony, I have sometimes thought I acted rashly, and have carefully kept that license as my defence and apology."
"Thank God, that it has been preserved. Give it to me."
"Pardon me if I say frankly, I prefer to retain it. All licenses are recorded by the officer who issued them, and by applying to him you can easily procure a copy."
"Treachery baffles me there. A most opportune fire broke out eighteen months ago in the room where those records were kept, and although the court house was saved, the book containing my marriage license was of course destroyed."
"But the clerk should be able to furnish a certificate of the facts."
"Not when he has been bribed to forget them. Please give me the paper in your possession."
She wrung her slender fingers, and her whole frame trembled like a weed on some bleak hillside, where wintry winds sweep unimpeded.
A troubled look crossed the grave, placid countenance of the pastor, and he clasped his hands firmly behind him, as if girding himself to deny the eloquent pleading of the lovely dark eyes.
"Sit down, madam, and listen to——"
"I cannot! A restless fever is consuming me, and nothing but the possession of that license can quiet me. You have no right to withhold it,—you cannot be so cruel, so wicked,—unless you also have been corrupted, bought off!"
"Be patient enough to hear me. I have always feared there was something wrong about that strange wedding, and your manner confirms my suspicions. Now I must be made acquainted with all the facts, must know your reason for claiming the paper in my possession, before I surrender it. As a minister of the Gospel, it is incumbent upon me to act cautiously, lest I innocently become auxiliary to deception, —possibly to crime."
A vivid scarlet flamed up in the girl's marble cheeks.
"Of what do you suspect, or accuse me?"
"I accuse you of nothing. I demand your reasons for the request you have made."
"I want that paper because it is the only proof of my marriage. There were two witnesses: my grandmother, who died three years ago on a steamship bound for California, where her only son is living, and Gerbert Audre, a college student, who is supposed to have been lost last summer in a fishing smack off the coast of Labrador or Greenland."
"I am a witness accessible at any time, should my testimony be required."
"Will you live for ever? Nay,—just when I need your evidence, my ill luck will seal your lips, and drive the screws down in your coffin lid."
"What use do you intend to make of the license? Deal candidly with me."
"I want to hold it, as the most precious thing left in life; to keep it concealed securely, until the time comes when it will serve me, save me, avenge me."
"Why is it necessary to prove your marriage? Who disputes it?"
"Cuthbert Laurance and his father."
"Is it possible! Upon what plea?"
"That he was a minor, was only twenty, irresponsible, and that the license was fraudulent."
"Where is your husband?"
"I tell you, I have no husband! It were sacrilege to couple that sacred title with the name of the man who has wronged, deserted, repudiated me; and who intends if possible to add to the robbery of my peace and happiness, that of my fair, stainless name. Less than one month after the day when right here, where I now stand, you pronounced me his wife in the sight of God and man, he was summoned home by a telegram from his father. I have never seen him since. General Laurance took his son immediately to Europe, and, sir, you will find it difficult to believe me, when I tell you that infamous father has actually forced the son by threats of disinheritance to many again,—to——"
The words seemed to strangle her, and she hastily broke away the ribbons which held her bonnet and were tied beneath her chin.
Mr. Hargrove poured some water into a goblet, and as he held it to her lips, murmured compassionately:
"Poor child! God help you."
Perhaps the genuine pity in the tone brought back sweet memories of the bygone, and for a moment softened the girl's heart, for tears gathered in the large eyes, giving them a strange quivering radiance. As if ashamed of the weakness she threw her head back defiantly, and continued:
"I was the poor little orphan, whose grandmother did washing and mending for the college boys—only little unknown Minnie Merle, with none to aid in asserting her rights;—and she—the new wife—was a banker's daughter, an heiress, a fashionable belle,—and so Minnie Merle must be trampled out, and the new Mrs. Cuthbert Laurance dashes in her splendid equipage through the Bois de Bologne. Sir, give me my license!"
Mr. Hargrove opened a secret drawer in the tall writing-desk that stood in one corner of the room, and, unlocking a square tin box, took from it a folded slip of paper. After some deliberation he seated himself, and began to write.
Impatiently his visitor paced the floor, followed by Bioern, who now and then growled suspiciously.
At length, when the pastor laid down his pen, his guest came to his side, and held out her hand.
"Madam, the statements you have made are so extraordinary, that you must pardon me if I am unusually cautious in my course. While I have no right to doubt your assertions, they seem almost incredible, and the use you might make of the license——"
"What! you find it so difficult to credit the villainy of a man—and yet so easy to suspect, to believe all possible deceit and wickedness in a poor helpless woman? Oh, man of God! is your mantle of charity cut to cover only your own sex? Can the wail of down-trodden orphanage wake no pity in your heart,—or is it locked against me by the cowardly dread of incurring the hate of the house of Laurance?"
For an instant a dark flush bathed the tranquil brow of the minister, but his kind tone was unchanged when he answered slowly:
"Four years ago I was in doubt concerning my duty, but just now there is clearly but one course for me to pursue. Unless you wish to make an improper use of it, this paper which I very willingly hand to you will serve your purpose. It is an exact copy of the license, and to it I have appended my certificate, as the officiating clergyman who performed the marriage ceremony. Examine it carefully, and you will find the date, and indeed every syllable rigidly accurate. From the original I shall never part, unless to see it replaced in the court house records."
Bending down close to the lamp, she eagerly read and reread the paper which shook like an aspen in her nervous grasp; then she looked long and searchingly into the grave face beside her, and a sudden light broke over her own.
"Oh, thank you! After all, the original is safer in your hands than in mine. I might be murdered, but they would never dare to molest you,—and if I should die, you would not allow them to rob my baby of her name?"
He looked at the young girlish figure and face, and it seemed impossible that the creature before him could be a mother. A melancholy smile curved her lips.
"Oh! that is the sting that sometimes goads me almost to desperation. My own wrongs are sufficiently hard to bear, but when I think of my innocent baby denied the sight of her father's face, and robbed of the protection of her father's name, then—I forget that I am only a woman, I forget that God reigns in heaven to right the wrongs on earth, and——"
There was a moment's silence.
"How old is your child?"
"And you? A mere child now."
"I am only nineteen."
"Poor thing! I pity you from the depths of my soul."
The clock struck ten, and the woman started from the table against which she leaned.
"I must not miss the train; I promised to return promptly."
She put on the grey cloak she had thrown aside, buttoned it about her throat, and tied her bonnet strings.
"Before you go, explain one thing. Was not your hair very dark when you were married?"
"Yes, a dark chestnut brown, but when my child was born I was ill a long time, and my head was shaved and blistered. When the hair grew out, it was just as you see it now. Ah! if we had only died then, baby and I, we might have had a quiet sleep under the violets and daisies. I see, sir, you doubt whether I am really little Minnie Merle. Do you not recollect that when you asked for the wedding ring none had been provided, and Cuthbert took one from his own hand, which was placed on my finger? Ah! there was a grim fitness in the selection! A death's head peeping out of a cinerary urn. You will readily recognize the dainty bridal token."
She drew from her bosom a slender gold chain on which was suspended a quaint antique cameo ring of black agate, with a grinning white skull in the centre, and around the oval border of heavily chased gold glittered a row of large and very brilliant diamonds.
"I distinctly remember the circumstance."
As the minister restored the ring to its owner, she returned it and the chain to its hiding-place.
"I do not wear it, I am biding my time. When General Laurance sent his agent first to attempt to buy me off, and, finding that impossible, to browbeat and terrify me into silence, one of his insolent demands was the restoration of this ring, which he said was an heirloom of untold value in his family, and must belong to none but a Laurance. He offered five hundred dollars for the delivery of it into his possession. I would sooner part with my right arm! Were it iron or lead, its value to me would be the same, for it is the only symbol of my lawful marriage,—is my child's title deed to a legitimate name."
She turned toward the door, and Dr. Hargrove asked:
"Where is your home?"
"I have none. I am a waif drifting from city to city, on the uncertain waves of chance."
"Have you no relatives?"
"Only an uncle, somewhere in the gold mines of California."
"Does General Laurance provide for your maintenance?"
"Three years ago his agent offered me a passage to San Francisco, and five thousand dollars, on condition that I withdrew all claim to my husband and to his name, and pledged myself to 'give the Laurances no further trouble.' Had I been a man, I would have strangled him. Since then no communication of any kind has passed between us, except that all my letters to Cuthbert pleading for his child have been returned without comment."
"How, then are you and the babe supported?"
"That, sir, is my secret."
She drew herself haughtily to her full height, and would have passed him, but he placed himself between her and the door.
"Mrs. Laurance, do not be offended by my friendly frankness. You are so young and so beautiful, and the circumstances of your life render you so peculiarly liable to dangerous associations and influences, that I fear you may——"
"Fear nothing for me. Can I forget my helpless baby, whose sole dower just now promises to be her mother's spotless name? Blushing for her father's perfidy, she shall never need a purer, whiter shield than her mother's stainless record—so help me, God!"
"Will you do me the favour to put aside for future contingencies this small tribute to your child? The amount is not so large that you should hesitate to receive it; and feeling a deep interest in your poor little babe, it will give me sincere pleasure to know that you accept it for her sake, as a memento of one who will always be glad to hear from you, and to aid you if possible."
With evident embarrassment he tendered an old-fashioned purse of knitted silk, through whose meshes gleamed the sheen of gold pieces. To his astonishment she covered her face with her hands and burst into a fit of passionate weeping. For some seconds she sobbed aloud, leaving him in painful uncertainty concerning the nature of her emotion.
"Oh, sir!—it has been so long since words of sympathy and real kindness were spoken to me, that now they unnerve me. I am strong against calumny and injustice,—but kindness breaks me down. I thank you in my baby's name, but we cannot take your money. Ministers are never oppressed with riches, and baby and I can live without charity. But since you are so good, I should like to say something in strict confidence to you. I am suspicious now of everybody, but it seems to me I might surely trust you. I do not yet see my way clearly, and if anything should happen to me the child would be thrown helpless upon the world. You have neither wife nor children, and if the time ever comes when I shall be obliged to leave my little girl for any long period, may I send her here for safety, until I can claim her? She shall cost you nothing but care and watchfulness. I could work so much better, if my mind were only easy about her; if I knew she was safely housed in this sanctuary of peace."
Ah! how irresistible was the pathetic pleading of the tearful eyes; but Mr. Hargrove did not immediately respond to the appeal.
"I understand your silence—you think me presumptuous in my request, and I daresay I am, but——"
"No, madam, not at all presumptuous. I hesitate habitually before assuming grave responsibility, and I only regret that I did not hesitate longer—four years ago. A man's first instincts of propriety, of right and wrong, should never be smothered by persuasion, nor wrestled down and overcome by subtle and selfish reasoning. I blame myself for much that has occurred, and I am willing to do all that I can toward repairing my error. If your child should ever really need a guardian, bring or send her to me, and I will shield her to the full extent of my ability." Ere he was aware of her intention, she caught his hand, and as she carried it to her lips he felt her tears falling fast.
"God bless you for your goodness! I have one thing more to ask; promise me that you will divulge to no one what I have told you. Let it rest between God and you and me."
"In the great city where I labour I bear an assumed name, and none must know, at least for the present, whom I am. Realizing fully the unscrupulous character of the men with whom I have to deal, my only hope of redress is in preserving the secret for some years, and not even my baby can know her real parentage until I see fit to tell her. You will not betray me, even to my child?"
"You may trust me."
"Thank you, more than mere words could ever express."
"May God help you, Mrs. Laurance, to walk circumspectly—to lead a blameless life."
He took his hat from the stand in the hall, and silently they walked down to the parsonage gate. The driver dismounted and opened the carriage door, but the draped figure lingered, with her hand upon the latch.
"If I should die before we meet again, you will not allow them to trample upon my child?"
"I will do my duty faithfully."
"Remember that none must know I am Minnie Laurance until I give you permission; for snares have been set all along my path, and calumny is ambushed at every turn. Good-bye, sir. The God of orphans will one day requite you."
The light from the carriage lamp shone down on her as she turned toward it, and in subsequent years the pastor was haunted by the marvellous beauty of the spirituelle features, the mournful splendour of the large misty eyes, and the golden glint of the rippling hair that had fallen low upon her temples.
"If it were not so late, I would accompany you to the railway station. You will have a lonely ride. Good-bye, Mrs. Laurance."
"Lonely, sir? Aye—lonely for ever."
She laughed bitterly, and entered the carriage.
"Laughed, and the echoes huddling in affright, Like Odin's hounds fled baying down the night."
With the night passed the storm which had rendered it so gloomy, and the fair cold day shone upon a world shrouded in icy cerements; a hushed, windless world, as full of glittering rime-runes as the frozen fields of Jotunheim. Each tree and shrub seemed a springing fountain, suddenly crystallized in mid-air, and not all the mediaeval marvels of Murano equalled the fairy fragile tracery of fine spun, glassy web, and film, and fringe that stretched along fences, hung from eaves, and belaced the ivy leaves that lay helpless on the walls. A blanched waning moon, a mere silver crescent, shivered upon the edge of the western horizon, fleeing before the scarlet and orange lances that already bristled along the eastern sky-line, the advance guard of the conqueror, who would ere many moments smite all that weird icy realm with consuming flames. The very air seemed frozen, and refused to vibrate in trills and roulades through the throaty organs of matutinal birds, that hopped and blinked, plumed their diamonded breasts, and scattered brilliants enough to set a tiara; and profound silence brooded over the scene, until rudely broken by a cry of dismay which rang out startlingly from the parsonage. The alarm might very readily have been ascribed to diligent Hannah, who, contemptuous of barometric or thermal vicissitudes, invariably adhered to the aphorism of Solomon, and, arising "while it is yet night, looketh well to the ways of her household."
With a broom in one hand, and feather dusting-brush in the other, she ran down the front steps, her white cap strings flying like distress signals,—bent down to the ground as a blood-hound might in scenting a trail,—then dashed back into the quiet old house, and uttered a wolfish cry:
"Robbers! Burglars! Thieves!"
Oppressed with compassionate reflections concerning the fate of his visitor, the minister had found himself unable to sleep as soundly as usual, and from the troubled slumber into which he sank after daylight he was aroused by the unwonted excitement that reigned in the hall, upon which his apartment opened. While hastily dressing, his toilette labours were expedited by an impatient rap which only Hannah's heavy hand could have delivered. Wrapped in his dressing-gown he opened the door, saying benignly:
"Is there an earthquake or a cyclone? You thunder as if my room were Mount Celion. Is any one dead?"
"Some one ought to be! The house was broken open last night, and the silver urn is missing. Shameless wretch! This comes of mysteries and veiled women, who are too modest to, look an honest female in the face, but——!"
"Oh, Hannah I that tongue of thine is more murderous than Cyrus' scythed chariots! Here is your urn! I put it away last night, because I saw from the newspapers that a quantity of plate had recently been stolen. Poor Hannah! don't scowl so ferociously because I have spoiled your little tragedy. I believe you are really sorry to see the dear old thing safe in defiance of your prophecy."
Mrs. Lindsay came downstairs laughing heartily, and menacing irate Hannah with the old-fashioned urn, which had supplied three generations with tea.
"Is that the sole cause of the disturbance?" asked the master, stooping to pat Bioern, who was dancing a tarantella on the good man's velvet slippers.
Somewhat crestfallen the woman seized the urn, began to polish it with her apron, and finally said sulkily:
"I beg pardon for raising a false alarm, but indeed it looked suspicious and smelled of foul play, when I found the library window wide open, two chairs upside down on the carpet,—mud on the window-sill, the inkstand upset,—and no urn on the sideboard. But as usual I am only an old fool, and you, sir, and Miss Elise know best I am very sorry I roused you so early with my racket."
"Did you say the library window wide open? Impossible; I distinctly recollect closing the blinds, and putting down the sash before I went to bed. Elise, were you not with me at the time?"
"Yes, I am sure you secured it, just before bidding me goodnight."
"Well—no matter, facts are ugly, stubborn things. Now you two just see for yourselves, what I found this morning."
Hannah hurried them into the library, where a fire had already been kindled, and her statement was confirmed by the disarranged furniture, and traces of mud on the window-sill and carpet. The inkstand had rolled almost to the hearth, scattering its contents en route, and as he glanced at his desk the minister turned pale.
The secret drawer which opened with a spring had been pulled out to its utmost extent, and he saw that the tin box he had so carefully locked the previous night was missing. Some MSS were scattered loosely in the drawer, and the purse filled with gold coins, a handsomely set miniature, and heavy watch chain with seal attached, all lay untouched, though conspicuously alluring to the cupidity of burglars. Bending over his rifled sanctuary, Mr. Hargrove sighed, and a grieved look settled on his countenance.
"Peyton, do you miss anything?"
"Only a box of papers."
"Were they valuable?"
"Pecuniarily no;—at least not convertible into money. In other respects, very important."
"Not your beautiful sermons, I hope," cried his sister, throwing one arm around his neck, and leaning down to examine the remaining contents of the drawer.
"They were more valuable, Elise, than many sermons, and some cannot be replaced."
"But how could the burglars have overlooked the money and jewellery?"
Again the minister sighed heavily, and, closing the drawer, said:
"Perhaps we may discover some trace in the garden."
"Aye, sir,—I searched before I raised an uproar, and here is a handkerchief that I found under that window, on the violet bed. It was frozen fast to the leaves."
Hannah held it up between the tips of her fingers, as if fearful of contamination, and eyed it with an expression of loathing. Mr. Hargrove took it to the light and examined it, while an unwonted frown wrinkled his usually placid brow. It was a dainty square of finest cambric, bordered with a wreath of embroidered lilies, and in one corner exceedingly embellished "O O" stared like wide wondering eyes, at the strange hands that profaned it.
"Do you notice what a curious, outlandish smell it has? It struck my nostrils sharper than hartshorn when I picked it up. No rum-drinking, tobacco-smoking burglar in breeches dropped that lace rag."
Hannah set her stout arms akimbo, and looked "unutterable things" at the delicate fabric, that as if to deprecate its captors was all the while breathing out deliciously sweet but vague hints,—now of eglantine, and now of that subtle spiciness that dwells in daphnes, and anon plays hide-and-seek in nutmeg geranium blooms.
Reluctance to admission of the suspicion of unworthiness in others is the invariable concomitant of true nobility of soul in all pure and exalted natures,—and with that genuine chivalry, which now, alas! is welnigh as rare as the aumoniere of pilgrims, the pastor bravely cast around the absent woman the broad, soft ermine of his tender charity.
"Hannah, if your insinuations point to the lady who called here last night, I can easily explain the suspicious fact of the handkerchief, which certainly belongs to her; for the room was close, and my visitor, having raised that window and leaned out for fresh air, doubtless dropped her handkerchief without observing the loss."
"Do the initials 'O O' represent her name?" asked Mrs. Lindsay, whose adroitly propounded interrogatories the previous evening had elicited no satisfactory information.
"Do not ladies generally stamp their own monograms when marking articles that compose their wardrobes?" He put the unlucky piece of cambric in his pocket, and pertinacious Hannah suddenly stooped and dealt Bioern a blow, which astonished the spectators even more than the yelping recipient, who dropped something at her feet and crawled behind his master.
"You horrid, greedy pest! Are you in league with the thieves, that you must needs try to devour the signs and tell-tales they dropped in the track of their dirty work? It is only a glove this time, sir, and it was all crumpled, just so,—where I first saw it, when I ran out to hunt for footprints. It was hanging on the end of a rose bush, yonder near the snowball, and you see it was rather too far from the window here to have fallen down with the handkerchief. Look, Miss Elise, your hands are small, but this would pinch even your fingers."
She triumphantly lifted a lady's kid glove, brown in colour and garnished with three small oval silver buttons, the exact mate of one which Mr. Hargrove had noticed the previous evening, when the visitor held up the ring for his inspection. Exulting in the unanswerable logic of this latest fact, Hannah quite unintentionally gave the glove a scornful toss, which caused it to fall into the fireplace, and down between two oak logs, where it shrivelled instantaneously. Unfortunately science is not chivalric, and divulges the unamiable and ungraceful truth, that perverted female natures from even the lower beastly types are more implacably vindictive, more subtly malicious, more ingeniously cruel than the stronger sex; and when a woman essays to track, to capture, or to punish—vae victis.
"Now, Bioern! improve your opportunity and heap coals of fire on slanderous Hannah's head, by assuring her you feel convinced she did not premeditatedly destroy traces, and connive at the escape of the burglars, by burning that most important glove, which might have aided us in identifying them."
As Mr. Hargrove caressed his dog, he smiled, evidently relieved by the opportune accident; but Mrs. Lindsay looked grave, and an indignant flush purpled the harsh, pitiless face of the servant, who sullenly turned away, and busied herself in putting the furniture in order.
"Peyton, were the stolen papers of a character to benefit that person,—or indeed any one but yourself, or your family?"
He knew the soft blue eyes of his sister were watching him keenly, saw too that the old servant stood still, and turned her head to listen, and he answered without hesitation:
"The box contained the deed to a disputed piece of property, those iron and lead mines in Missouri,—and I relied upon it to establish my claim."
"Was the lady who visited you last night in any manner interested in that suit, or its result?"
"Not in the remotest degree. She cannot even be aware of its existence. In addition to the deed, I have lost the policy of insurance on this house, which has always been entrusted to me and I must immediately notify the company of the fact and obtain a duplicate policy. Elise, will you and Hannah please give me my breakfast as soon as possible, that I may go into town at once?"
Walking to the window, he stood for some moments, with his hands folded behind him, and as he noted the splendour of the spectacle presented by the risen sun shining upon temples and palaces of ice, prism-tinting domes and minarets, and burnishing after the similitude of silver stalactites and arcades which had built themselves into crystal campaniles, more glorious than Giotto's,—the pastor said: "The physical world, just as God left it,—how pure, how lovely, how entirely good;—how sacred from His hallowing touch! Oh that the world of men and women were half as unchangingly true, stainless, and holy!"
An hour later he bent his steps,—not to the lawyer's, nor yet to the insurance office, but to the depot of the only railroad which passed through the quiet, old-fashioned, and comparatively unimportant town of V——.
The station agent was asleep upon a sofa in the reception-room, but when aroused informed Dr. Hargrove that the down train bound south had been accidentally detained four hours, and instead of being "on time," due at eleven p.m., did not pass through V—— until after three a.m. A lady, corresponding in all respects with the minister's description, had arrived about seven on the up train, left a small valise, or rather traveller's satchel, for safe keeping in the baggage-room; had inquired at what time she could catch the down train, signifying her intention to return upon it, and had hired one of the carriages always waiting for passengers, and disappeared. About eleven o'clock she came back, paid the coachman, and dismissed the carriage; seemed very cold, and the agent built a good fire, telling her she could take a nap as the train was behind time, and he would call her when he heard the whistle. He then went home, several squares distant, to see one of his children who was quite ill, and when he returned to the station and peeped into the reception-room to see if it kept warm and comfortable not a soul was visible. He wondered where the lady could have gone at that hour, and upon such a freezing night, but sat down by the grate in the freight-room, and when the down train blew for V—— he took his lantern and went out, and the first person he saw was the missing lady. She asked for her satchel, which he gave her, and he handed her up to the platform, and saw her go into the ladies' car.
"Had she a package or box, when she returned and asked for her satchel?"
"I did not see any, but she wore a waterproof of grey cloth that came down to her feet. There was so much confusion when the train came in that I scarcely noticed her, but remember she shivered a good deal, as if almost frozen."
"Did she buy a return ticket?"
"No, I asked if I should go to the ticket office for her, but she thanked me very politely, and said she would not require anything."
"Can you tell me to what place she was going?"
"I do not know where she came from, nor where she went. She was most uncommonly beautiful."
"Are the telegraph wires working south?"
"Why bless you, sir! they are down in several places, from the weight of the ice, so I heard the station operator say, just before you came in."
As Dr. Hargrove walked away, an expression of stern indignation replaced the benign look that usually reigned over his noble features, and he now resolutely closed all the avenues of compassion, along which divers fallacious excuses and charitable conjectures had marched into his heart, and stifled for a time the rigorous verdict of reason.
He had known from the moment he learned the tin box was missing, that only the frail, fair fingers of Minnie Merle could have abstracted it, but justice demanded that he should have indisputable proof of her presence in V—— after twelve o'clock, for he had not left the library until that hour, and knew that the train passed through at eleven.
Conviction is the pitiless work of unbiased reason, but faith is the acceptance thereof, by will, and he would not wholly believe, until there was no alternative. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, and quite naturally Dr. Hargrove began to discredit the entire narrative of wrongs, which had attained colossal proportions from her delineation, and to censure himself most harshly for having suffered this dazzling Delilah to extort from him a solemn promise of secrecy; for, unworthy of sympathy as he now deemed her, his rigid rectitude would not permit him to regard that unworthiness as sufficient justification for abrogating his plighted word. Suspicious facts which twelve hours before had been hushed by the soft spell of her rich plaintive voice, now started up clamorous and accusing, and the pastor could not avoid beholding the discrepancy between her pleas of poverty and friendlessness, and the costly appearance of her apparel,—coupled with her refusal to acquaint him with her means of maintenance.
If, as she had averred, the stolen license was—with the exception of his verbal testimony—the sole proof of her marriage, why was she not satisfied with the copy given to her unless for some unrighteous motive she desired to possess in order to destroy all evidence?
Surmise, with crooked and uncertain finger, had pointed to New York—whose broad deep bosom shelters so many helpless human waifs—as her probable place of destination, and had the telegraph-wires been in successful operation he would have hazarded the experiment of requesting her arrest at the terminus of the railway; but this was impracticable, and each succeeding hour aided in obliterating the only clue in his possession.
The universal observation of man, ages ago, simmered down and crystallized into the adage, "Misfortunes never come singly;" and it is here respectfully submitted—that startling episodes, unexpected incidents quite as rarely travel alone. Do surprises gravitate into groups, or are certain facts binary?
Sometimes for a quarter of a century the sluggish stream of life oozes by, bearing no hint of deeds, or faces,—that perchance shed glory, or perhaps lent gloom to the far past,—a past well-nigh forgotten and inurned in the gathering grey of time,—and suddenly without premonition, the slow monotonous current ripples and swells into waves that bear to our feet fateful countenances, unwelcome as grave-ghouls,—and the world grows garrulous of incidents that once more galvanize the shrouded Bygone. For four years the minister had received no tidings of those whom he had so reluctantly joined in the bonds of wedlock, and not even a reminiscence of that singular bridal party had floated into his quiet parsonage study; but within twenty-four hours he seemed destined to garner a plentiful harvest of disagreeable data for future speculation. He had not yet reached his lawyer's office, when, hearing his name pronounced vociferously, Dr. Hargrove looked around and saw the postmaster standing in his door and calling on him to enter.
"Pardon me, my dear sir, for shouting after you so unceremoniously; but I saw you were not coming in, and knew it would promote your interest to pay me a visit. Fine day at last, after all the rain and murky weather. This crisp, frosty air sharpens one's wits,—a sort of atmospheric pumice, don't you see, and tempts me to drive a good bargain. How much will you give for a letter that has travelled half around the world, and had as many adventures as Robinson Crusoe, or Madame Pfeiffer?"
He took from a drawer a dingy and much-defaced envelope, whose address was rather indistinct from having encountered a oath on its journey.
"Are you sure that it is for me?" asked the minister, trying to decipher the uncertain characters.
"Are there two of your name? This is intended for Reverend Peyton Hargrove of St. —— Church — V——, United States of America. It was enclosed to me by the Postmaster-General, who says that it arrived last week in the long-lost mail of the steamship Algol, which you doubtless recollect was lost some time ago,—plying between New York and Havre; It now appears that a Dutch sailing vessel bound for Tasmania—wherever that may be; somewhere among the cannibals, I presume—boarded her after she had been deserted by the crew, and secured the mail bags, intending to put in along the Spanish coast and land them, but stress of weather drove them so far out to sea, that they sailed on to some point in Africa, and as the postmasters in that progressive and enlightened region did not serve their apprenticeship in the United States Postal Bureau, you perceive that your document has not had 'despatch.' If salt water is ever a preservative, your news ought not to be stale."
"Thank you. I hope the contents will prove worthy of the care and labour of its transmission. I see it is dated Paris—one year ago, nearly. I am much obliged by your kind courtesy. Good-day."
Dr. Hargrove walked on, and, somewhat disappointed in not receiving a moiety of information by way of recompense, the postmaster added:
"If you find it is not your letter bring it back, and I will start it on another voyage of discovery, for it certainly deserves to get home."
"There is no doubt whatever about it. It was intended for me."
Unfolding the letter, he had glanced at the signature, and now hurrying homeward, read as follows:
"PARIS, February 1st,
"REV. PEYTON HARGROVE,—Hoping that, while entirely ignorant of the facts and circumstances, you unintentionally inflicted upon me an incalculable injury, I reluctantly address you with reference to a subject fraught with inexpressible pain and humiliation. Through your agency the happiness and welfare of my only child, and the proud and unblemished name of a noble family, have been wellnigh wrecked; but my profound reverence for your holy office, persuades me to believe that you were unconsciously the dupe of unprincipled and designing parties. When my son Cuthbert entered —— University, he was all that my fond heart desired, all that his sainted mother could have hoped, and no young gentleman on the wide Continent gave fairer promise of future usefulness and distinction; but one year of demoralizing association with dissipated and reckless youths undermined the fair moral and intellectual structure I had so laboriously raised, and in an unlucky hour he fell a victim to alluring vices. Intemperance gradually gained such supremacy that he was threatened with expulsion, and to crown all other errors he was, while intoxicated, inveigled into a so-called marriage with a young but notorious girl, whose only claim was her pretty face, while her situation was hopelessly degraded. This creature, Minnie Merle, had an infirm grandmother, who, in order to save the reputation of the unfortunate girl, appealed so adroitly to Cuthbert's high sense of honour, that her arguments, emphasized by the girl's beauty and helplessness, prevailed over reason, and—I may add—decency and one day when almost mad with brandy and morphine he consented to call her his wife. Neither was of age, and my son was not only a minor (lacking two months of being twenty), but on that occasion was utterly irrational and irresponsible, as I am prepared to prove. They intended to conceal the whole shameful affair from me, but the old grandmother—fearing that some untoward circumstance might mar the scheme of possessing the ample fortune she well knew my boy expected to control—wrote me all the disgraceful facts, imploring my clemency, and urging me to remove Cuthbert from associates outside of his classmates, who were dragging him to ruin. If you, my dear sir, are a father (and I hope you are), paternal sympathy will enable you to realize approximately the grief, indignation, almost despairing rage into which I was plunged. Having informed myself through a special agent sent to the University of the utter unworthiness and disreputable character of the connection forced upon me, I telegraphed for Cuthbert, alleging some extraneous cause for requiring his presence. Three days after his arrival at home, I extorted a full confession from him, and we were soon upon the Atlantic. For a time I feared that inebriation had seriously impaired his intellect, but, thank God! temperate habits and a good constitution finally prevailed, and when a year after we left America Cuthbert realized all that he had hazarded during his temporary insanity, he was so overwhelmed with mortification and horror that he threatened to destroy himself. Satisfied that he was more 'sinned against, than sinning,' I yet endeavoured to deal justly with the unprincipled authors of the stain upon my family, and employed a discreet agent to negotiate with them, and to try to effect some compromise. The old woman went out to California; the young one refused all overtures, and for a time disappeared, but, as I am reliably informed, is now living in New York, supported no one knows exactly by whom. Recently she has made an imperious demand for the recognition of a child, who she declares shall one day inherit the Laurance estate; but I have certain facts in my possession which invalidate this claim, and if necessary can produce a certificate to prove that the birth of the child occurred only seven months after the date of the ceremony, which she contends made her Cuthbert's wife. She rejects the abundant pecuniary provision which has been repeatedly offered, and in her last impertinent and insanely abusive communication, threatens a suit to force the acknowledgment of the marriage, and of the child, stating that you, sir, hold the certificate or rather the license warranting the marriage, and that you will espouse and aid in prosecuting her iniquitous claims. My son is now a reformed and comparatively happy man, but should this degrading and bitterly repented episode of his collage life be thrust before the public, and allowed to blacken the fair escutcheon we are so jealously anxious to protect, I dread the consequences. Only horror of a notorious scandal prevented me long ago from applying for a divorce, which could very easily have been obtained, but we shrink from the publicity, and moreover the case does not seem to demand compliance with even the ordinary forms of law. Believing that you, my dear sir, would not avow yourself particeps criminis in so unjust and vile a crusade against the peace and honour of my family were you acquainted with the facts, I have taken the liberty of writing you this brief and incomplete resume of the outrages perpetrated upon me and mine, and must refer you for disgraceful details to my agent, Mr. Peleg Peterson of Whitefield, —— Co., ——. Hoping that you will not add to the injury you have already inflicted, by further complicity in this audacious scheme of fraud and blackmail,
"I am, dear sir, respectfully An afflicted father, RENE LAURANCE.
"P.S.—Should you desire to communicate with me, my address for several months will be, Care of the American Legation, Paris."
How many men or women, with lives of average length and incident, have failed to recognize, nay to cower before the fact, that all along the highways and byways of the earthly pilgrimage they have been hounded by a dismal cortege of retarded messages,—lost opportunities,—miscarried warnings,—procrastinated prayers,—dilatory deeds,—and laggard faces,—that howl for ever in their shuddering ears—"Too late." Had Dr. Hargrove received this letter only twenty-four hours earlier, the result of the interview on the previous night would probably have been very different; but unfortunately, while the army of belated facts—the fatal Grouchy corps—never accomplish their intended mission, they avenge they failure by a pertinacious presence ever after that is sometimes almost maddening.
An uncomfortable consciousness of having been completely overreached did not soften the minister's feelings toward the new custodian of his tin box, and an utter revulsion of sentiment ensued, wherein sympathy for General Rene Laurance reigned supreme. Oh instability of human compassion! To-day at the tumultuous flood, we weep for Caesar slain; To-morrow in the ebb, we vote a monument to Brutus.
Ere the sun had gone down behind the sombre frozen firs that fringed the hills of V—— Dr. Hargrove had written to Mr. Peleg Peterson, desiring to be furnished with some clue by which he could trace Minnie Merle, and Hannah had been despatched to the post office, to expedite the departure of the letter.
Weeks and months passed, tearful April wept itself away in the flowery lap of blue-eyed May, and golden June roses died in the fiery embrace of July, but no answer came; no additional information drifted upon the waves of chance, and the slow stream of life at the parsonage once more crept silently and monotonously on.
"Some griefs gnaw deep. Some woes are hard to bear. Who knows the Past? and who can judge us right?"
The sweet-tongued convent bell had rung the Angelas, and all within the cloistered courts was hushed, save the low monologue of the fountain whose minor murmuring made solemn accord with the sacred harmonious repose of its surroundings. The sun shone hot and blinding upon the towering mass of brick and slate, which, originally designed in the form of a parallelogram, had from numerous modern additions projected here, and curved into a new chapel yonder, until the acquisitive building had become eminently composite in its present style of architecture. The belfry, once in the centre, had been left behind in the onward march of the walls, but it lifted unconquerably in mid-air its tall gilt cross, untarnished by time, though ambitious ivy had steadily mounted the buttresses, and partially draped the Gothic arches, where blue sky once shone freely through.
The court upon which the ancient monastery opened was laid out in the stiff geometric style, which universally prevailed when its trim hedges of box were first planted, and giant rosebushes, stately lilacs, and snowballs attested the careful training and attention which many years had bestowed. In the centre of this court, and surrounded by a wide border of luxuriant lilies, was a triangular pedestal of granite, now green with moss, and spotted with silver grey lichen groups, upon which stood a statue of St. Francis, bearing the stigmata, and wearing the hood drawn over his head, while the tunic was opened to display the wound in his side, and the skull and the crucifix lay at his feet. Close to the base of the pedestal crouched a marble lamb, around whose neck crept a slender chain of bind-weed, and above whom the rank green lances of leaves shot up to guard the numerous silver-dusted lilies that swung like snowy bells in the soft breeze, dispensing perfume instead of chimes.
Quite distinct from the spacious new chapel—with its gilded shrine, picture-tapestried walls, and gorgeous stained windows, where the outside-world believers were allowed to worship—stood a low cruciform oratory, situated within the stricter confines of the monastery, and sacred to the exclusive use of the nuns. This chapel was immediately opposite the St. Francis, and to-day, as the old-fashioned doors of elaborately carved oak were thrown wide, the lovely mass of nodding lillies seemed bowing in adoration before the image of the Virgin and Child, who crowned the altar within, while the dazzling sheen of noon flashing athwart the tessellated floor kindles an almost unearthly halo around
"Virgin and Babe, and Saint, who With the same cold, calm, beautiful regard,"
had watched for many weary years the kneeling devotees beneath their marble feet.
On the steps of the altar were a number of china pots containing rose and apple geraniums in full bloom, and one luxuriant Grand Duke jasmine, all starred with creamy flowers, so flooded the place with fragrance that it seemed as if the vast laboratory of floral aromas had been suddenly unsealed.
Upon the stone pavement, immediately in front of the altar, sat a little figure so motionless, that a casual glance would probably have included it among the consecrated and permanent images of the silent sanctuary;—the figure of a child, whose age could not have been accurately computed from the inspection of the countenance, which indexed a degree of grave mature wisdom wholly incompatible with the height of the body and the size of the limbs.
If devotional promptings had brought her to the Nuns' Chapel, her orisons had been concluded, for she had turned her back upon the altar, and sat gazing sorrowfully down at her lap, where lay in pathetic pose a white rabbit and a snowy pigeon,—both dead, quite stark and cold,—laid out in state upon the spotless linen apron, around which a fluted ruffle ran crisp and smooth. One tiny waxen hand held a broken lily, and the other was vainly pressed upon the lids of the rabbit's eyes, trying to close lovingly the pink orbs that now stared so distressingly through glazing film. The first passionate burst of grief had spent its force in the tears that left the velvety cheeks and chin as dewy as rain-washed rose leaves, while not a trace of moisture dimmed the large eyes that wore a proud, defiant, and much injured look, as though resentment were strangling sorrow.
Unto whom or what shall I liken this fair, tender, childish face, which had in the narrow space of ten years gathered such perfection of outline, such unearthly purity of colour, such winsome grace, such complex expressions? Probably amid the fig and olive groves of Tuscany, Fra Bartolomeo found just such an incarnation of the angelic ideal, which he afterward placed for the admiration of succeeding generations in the winged heads that glorify the Madonna della Misericordia. The stipple of time dots so lightly, so slowly, that at the age of ten a human countenance should present a mere fleshy tabula rasa, but now and then we are startled by meeting a child as unlike the round, rosy, pulpy, dimpling, unwritten faces of ordinary life, as the churubs of Raphael to the rigid forms of Byzantine mosaics, or the stone portraiture of Copan.
As she sat there, in the golden radiance of the summer noon, she presented an almost faultless specimen of a type of beauty that is rarely found nowaday, that has always been peculiar, and bids fair to become extinct. A complexion of dazzling whiteness and transparency, rendered more intensely pure by contrast with luxuriant silky hair of the deepest black,—and large superbly shaped eyes of clear, dark steel blue, almost violet in hue,—with delicately arched brows and very long lashes of that purplish black tint which only the trite and oft-borrowed plumes of ravens adequately illustrate. The forehead was not remarkable for height, but was peculiarly broad and full with unusual width between the eyes, and if Strato were correct in his speculations with reference to Psyche's throne, then verily my little girl did not cramp her soul in its fleshy palace. Daintily moulded in figure and face, every feature instinct with a certain delicate patricianism, that testified to genuine "blue blood," there was withal a melting tenderness about the parted lips that softened the regal contour of one who, amid the universal catalogue of feminine names, could never have been appropriately called other than Regina.
Over in the new chapel across the court, where the sacristan had opened two of the crimson and green windows that now lighted the gilt altar as with sacrificial fire, and now drenched it with cool beryl tints that extinguished the flames, a low murmur became audible, swelling and rising upon the air, until the thunder-throated organ filled all the cloistered recesses with responsive echoes of Rossini. Some masterly hand played the "Recitative" of Eia Mater, bringing out the bass with powerful emphasis, and concluding with the full strains of the chorus; then the organ-tones sank into solemn minor chords indescribably plaintive, and after a while a quartette of choir voices sang the
"Sancta Mater! istud agas, Crucifixi fige plagas,"
ending with the most impassioned strain of the Stabat Mater,—
"Virgo virginum praedara, Mihi jam non sis amara, Fac me tecum plangere."
Two nuns came out of an arched doorway leading to the reception-room of the modern building, and looked up and down the garden walks, talking the while in eager undertones; then paused near the lily bank, and one called:
"She must be somewhere in the Academy playground, I will hunt for her there; or perhaps you might find her over in the church, listening to the choir practising, you know she is strangely fond of that organ."
The speaker turned away and disappeared in the cool dim arch, and the remaining nun moved across the paved walk with the quick, noiseless, religious tread peculiar to those sacred conventual retreats where the clatter of heels is an abomination unknown.
Pausing in front of the chapel door to bend low before the marble Mother on the shrine, she beheld the object of her search and glided down the aisle as stealthily as a moonbeam.
"Regina, didn't you hear Sister Gonzaga calling you just now?"
"Did you answer her?"
"Are you naughty to-day, and in penance?"
"I suppose I am always naughty, Sister Perpetua says so; but I am not in penance."
"Who gave you permission to come into our chapel? You know it is contrary to the rules. Did you ask Mother?"
"I knew she would say no, so I did not ask, because I was determined to come."
"Why? what is the matter? you have been crying."
"Oh, Sister Angela! don't you see?"
She lifted the corners of her apron where the dead pets lay, and her chin trembled.
"Another rabbit gone! How many have you left?"
"None. And this is my last white dove; the other two have coloured rings around their necks."
"I am very sorry for you, dear, you seem so fond of them. But, my child, why did you come here?"
"My Bunnie was not dead when I started, and I thought if I could only get to St. Francis and show it to him he would cure it, and send life back to my pigeon too. You know, Sister, that Father told us last week at instruction we must find out all about St. Francis, and next day Armantine was Refectory Reader, and she read us about St. Francis preaching to the birds at Bevagno, and how they opened their beaks and listened, and even let him touch them, and never stirred till he blessed them and made the sign of the Cross, and then they all flew away. She read all about the doves at the convent of Ravacciano, and the nest of larks, and the bad, greedy little lark that St. Francis ordered to die, and said nothing should eat it, and sure enough, even the hungry cats ran away from it. Don't you remember that when St. Francis went walking about the fields, the rabbits jumped into his bosom, because he loved them so very much? You see, I thought it was really all true, and that St. Francis could save mine too, and I carried 'Bunnie' and 'Snowball' to him—out yonder, and laid them on his feet, and prayed and prayed ever so long, and while I was praying my 'Bunnie' died right there. Then I knew he could do no good, and I thought I would try our Blessed Lady over here, because the Nuns' Chapel seems holier than ours,—but it is no use. I will never pray to her again, nor to St. Francis either."
"Hush! you wicked child!"
Regina rose slowly from the pavement, gathered up her apron very tenderly, and, looking steadily into the sweet serene face of the nun, said with much emphasis:
"What have I done? Sister Angela, I am not wicked."
"Yes, dear, you are. We are all born full of sin, and desperately wicked; but if you will only pray and try to be good, I have no doubt St. Francis will send you some rabbits and doves so lovely, that they will comfort you for those you have lost."
"I know just as well as you do that he has no idea of doing anything of the kind, and you need not tell me pretty tales that you don't believe yourself. Sister, it is all humbug; 'Bunnie' is dead, and I sha'n't waste another prayer on St. Francis! If ever I get another rabbit, it will be when I buy one, as I mean to do just as soon as I move to some nice place where owls and hawks never come."
Here the clang of a bell startled Sister Angela, who seized the child's hand.
"Five strokes!—that is my bell. Come, Regina, we have been hunting you for some time, and Mother will be out of patience."
"Won't you please let me bury Bunnie and Snowball before I go upstairs to penance? I can dig a grave in the corner of my little garden and plant verbena and cypress vine over it."
She shivered as if the thought had chilled her heart, and her voice trembled, while she pressed the stiffened forms to her, breast.
"Come along as fast as you can, dear, you are wanted in the parlour. I believe you are going away."
"Oh! has my mother come?"
"I don't know, but I am afraid you will leave us."
"Will you be sorry, Sister Angela?"
"Very sorry, dear child, for we love our little girl too well to give her up willingly."
Regina paused and pressed her lips to the cold white fingers that clasped hers, but Sister Angela hurried her on till she reached a door opening into the Mother's reception-room. Catching the child to her heart, she kissed her twice, lifted the dead darlings from her apron, and, pushing her gently into the small parlour, closed the door.
It was a cool, lofty, dimly lighted room, where the glare of sunshine never entered, and several seconds elapsed before Regina could distinguish any object. At one end a wooden lattice work enclosed a space about ten feet square, and here Mother Aloysius held audience with visitors whom friendship or business brought to the convent. Regina's eager survey showed her only a gentleman, sitting close to the grating, and an expression of keen disappointment swept over her countenance, which had been a moment before eloquent with expectation of meeting her mother.
"Come here, Regina, and speak to Mr. Palma," said the soft, velvet voice behind the lattice.
The visitor turned around, rose, and watched the slowly advancing figure.
She was dressed in blue muslin, the front of which was concealed by her white bib-apron, and her abundant glossy hair was brushed straight back from her brow, confined at the top of her head by a blue ribbon, and thence fell in shining waves below her waist. One hand hung listlessly at her side, the other clasped the drooping lily and held it against her heart.
The slightly curious expression of the stranger gave place to astonishment and involuntary admiration as he critically inspected the face and form; and, fixing her clear, earnest eyes on him, Regina saw a tall, commanding man of certainly not less than thirty years, with a noble massive head, calm pale features almost stern when in repose, and remarkably brilliant piercing black eyes, that were doubtless somewhat magnified by the delicate steel-rimmed spectacles he habitually wore. His closely cut hair clustered in short thick waves about his prominent forehead, which in pallid smoothness resembled a slab of marble, and where a slight depression usually marks the temples his swelled boldly out, rounding the entire outline of the splendidly developed brow. He wore neither moustache nor beard, and every line of his handsome mouth and finely modelled chin indicated the unbending tenacity of purpose and imperial pride which had made him a ruler even in his cradle, and almost a dictator in later years.
In a certain diminished degree children share the instinct whereby brutes discern almost infallibly the nature of those who in full fruition of expanded reason tower above and control them; and, awed by something which she read in this dominative new face, Regina stood irresolute in front of him, unwilling to accept the shapely white hand held out to her.
He advanced a step, and took her fingers into his soft warm palm.
"I hope, Miss Regina, that you are glad to see me."
Her eyes fell from his countenance to the broad seal ring on his little finger, then, gazing steadily up into his, she said:
"I think I never saw you before, and why should I be glad? Why did you come and ask for me?"
"Because your mother sent me to look after you."
"Then I suppose, sir, you are very good; but I would rather see my mother. Is she well?"
"Almost well now, though she has been quite ill. If you promise to be very good and obedient, I may find a letter for you, somewhere in my pockets. I have just been telling Mother Aloysius, to whom I brought a letter, that I have come to remove you from her kind sheltering care, as your mother wishes you for a while at least to be placed in a different position, and I have promised to carry out her instructions. Here is her letter. Shall I read it to you, or are you sufficiently advanced to be able to spell it out without my assistance?"
He held up the letter, and she looked at him proudly, with a faint curl in her dainty lip, and a sudden lifting of her lovely arched eyebrows, which, without the aid of verbal protest, he fully comprehended. A smile hovered about his mouth, and disclosed a set of glittering perfect teeth, but he silently resumed his seat. As Regina broke the seal, Mother said:
"Wait, dear, and read it later. Mr. Palmer has already been detained some time, and says he is anxious to catch the train. Run up to the wardrobe, and Sister Helena will change your dress. She is packing your clothes."
When the door closed behind her a heavy sigh floated through the grating, and the sweet seraphic face of the nun clouded.
"I wish we could keep her always; it is a sadly solemn thing to cast such a child as she is into the world's whirlpool of sin and sorrow. To-day she is as spotless in soul as one of our consecrated annunciation lilies; but the dust of vanity and selfishness will tarnish, and the shock of adversity will bruise, and the heat of the battle of life that rages so fiercely in the glare of the outside world will wither and deface the sweet blossom we have nurtured so carefully."
"In view of the peculiar circumstances that surround her, her removal impresses me as singularly injudicious, and I have advised against it, but her mother is inflexible."
"We have never been able to unravel the mystery that seems to hang about the child, although the Bishop assured us we were quite right in consenting to assume the charge of her."
From beneath her heavy black hood, Mother's meek shy eyes searched the non-committal countenance before her, and found it about as satisfactorily responsive as some stone sphinx half-sepulchred in Egyptic sand.
"May I ask, sir, if you are at all related to Regina?"
"Not even remotely; am merely her mother's legal counsellor, and the agent appointed by her to transfer the child to different guardianship. I repeat, I deem the change inexpedient, but discretionary powers have not been conferred on me. She seems rather a mature bit of royalty for ten years of age. Is the intellectual machinery at all in consonance with the refined perfection of the external physique?"
"She has a fine active brain, clear and quick, and is very well advanced in her studies, for she is fond of her books. Better than all, her heart is noble, and generous, and she is a conscientious little thing, never told a story in her life; but at times we have had great difficulty in controlling her will, which certainly is the most obstinate I have ever encountered."
"She evidently does not suggest wax, save in the texture of her fine skin, and one rarely finds in a child's face so much of steel as is ambushed in the creases of the rose leaves that serve her as lips. If her will matches her mother's, this little one certainly was not afflicted with a misnomer at her baptism." He rose, looked at his watch, and walked across the room as if to inspect a Pieta that hung upon the wall. Unwilling to conclude an interview which had yielded her no information, Mother Aloysius patiently awaited the result of the examination, but he finally went to the window, and a certain unmistakable expression of countenance which can be compared only to a locking of mouth and eyes, warned her that he was alert and inflexible. With a smothered sigh she left her seat.
"As you seem impatient, Mr. Palma, I will endeavour to hasten the preparations for your departure."
"If you please, Mother; I shall feel indebted to your kind consideration."
Nearly an hour elapsed ere she returned leading Regina, and as the latter stood between Mother and Sister Angela, with a cluster of fresh fragrant lilies in her hand, and her tender face blanched and tearful, it seemed to the lawyer as if indeed the pet ewe lamb were being led away from peaceful flowery pastures, from the sweet sanctity of the cloistral fold, out through thorny devious paths where Temptations prowl wolf-fanged, or into fierce conflicts that end in the social shambles, those bloodless abattoirs where malice mangles humanity. How many verdure-veiled, rose-garlanded pitfalls yawned in that treacherous future now stretching before her like summer air, here all gold and blue, yonder with purple glory crowning the dim far away? Intuitively she recognized the fact that she was confronting the first cross roads in her hitherto monotonous life, and a vague dread flitted like ill-omened birds before her, darkening her vision.
In the gladiatorial arena of the court-room, Mr. Palma was regarded as a large-brained, nimble-witted, marble-hearted man, of vast ambition and tireless energy in the acquisition of his aims; but his colleagues and clients would as soon have sought chivalric tenderness in a bronze statue, or a polished obelisk of porphyry. To-day as he curiously watched the quivering yet proud little girlish face, her brave struggles to meet the emergency touched some chord far down in his reticent stern nature, and he suddenly stooped, and took her hand, folding it up securely in his.
"Are you not quite willing to trust yourself with me?"
She hesitated a moment, then said with a slight wavering in her low tone:
"I have been very happy here, and I love the Sisters dearly; but you are my mother's friend, and whatever she wishes me to do of course must be right."
Oh beautiful instinctive faith in maternal love and maternal wisdom! Wot ye the moulding power ye wield, ye mothers of America?
Pressing her fingers gently as if to reassure her, he said:
"I dislike to hurry you away from these kind Sisters, but if your baggage is ready we have no time to spare."
The nuns wept silently as she embraced them for the last time, kissed them on both cheeks, then turned and suffered Mr. Palma to lead her to the carriage, whither her trunk had already been sent.
Leaning out, she watched the receding outlines of the convent until a bend of the road concealed even the belfry, and then she stooped and kissed the drooping lilies in her lap.
Her companion expected a burst of tears, but she sat erect and quiet, and not a word was uttered until they reached the railway station and entered the cars. Securing a double seat he placed her at the window, and sat down opposite. It was her introduction to railway travel, and when the train moved off, and the locomotive sounded its prolonged shriek of departure, Regina started up, but, as if ashamed of her timidity, coloured and bit her lip. Observing that she appeared interested in watching the country through which they sped, Mr. Palma drew a book from his valise, and soon became so absorbed in the contents that he forgot tie silent figure on the seat before him.
The afternoon wore away, the sun went down, and when the lamps were lighted the lawyer suddenly remembered his charge.
"Well, Regina, how do you like travelling on the cars?"
"Not at all; it makes my head ache."
"Take off your hat, and I will try to make you more comfortable."
He untied a shawl secured to the outside of his valise, placed it on the arm of the seat, and made her lay her head upon it.
Keeping his finger as a mark amid the leaves of his book, he said:
"We shall not reach our journey's end until to-morrow morning, and I advise you to sleep as much as possible. Whenever you feel hungry you will find some sandwiches, cake, and fruit in the basket at your feet."
She looked at him intently, and interpreting the expression he added:
"You wish to ask me something? Am I so very frightful that you dare not question me?"
"Will you tell me the truth, if I ask you?"
"Mr. Palma, when shall I see my mother?"
His eyes went down helplessly before the girl's steady gaze, and he hesitated a moment.
"Really, I cannot tell exactly,—but I hope——"
She put up her small hand quickly, with a gesture that silenced him.
"Don't say any more, please. I never want to know half of anything, and you can't tell me all. Good-night, Mr. Palma."
She shut her eyes.
This man of bronze who could terrify witnesses, torture and overwhelm the opposition, and thunder so successfully from the legal rostrum, sat there abashed by the child's tone and manner, and as he watched her he could not avoid smiling at her imperious mandate. Although silent, it was one o'clock before she fell into a deep, sound slumber, and then the lawyer leaned forward and studied the dreamer.
The light from the lamp shone upon her, and the long silky black lashes lay heavily on her white cheeks. Now and then a sigh passed her lips, and once a dry sob shook her frame, as if she were again passing through the painful ordeal of parting; but gradually the traces of emotion disappeared, and that marvellous peace which we find only in children's countenances, or on the faces of the dead,—and which is nowhere more perfect than in old Greek statuary,—settled like a benediction over her features. Her frail hands clasped over her breast still held the faded lilies, and to Erle Palma she seemed too tender and fair for rude contact with the selfish world, in which he was so indefatigably carving out fame and fortune. He wondered how long a time would be requisite to transform this pure, spotless, ingenuous young thing into one of the fine fashionable miniature women with frizzed hair and huge paniers, whom he often met in the city, with school-books in their hands, and bold, full-blown coquetry in their eyes?
Certainly he was as devoid of all romantic weakness as the propositions of Euclid, or the pages of Blackstone, but something in the beauty and helpless innocence of the sleeper appealed with unwonted power to his dormant sympathy, and, suspecting that lurking spectres crouched in her future, he mutely entered into a compact with his own soul, not to lose sight of, but to befriend her faithfully, whenever circumstances demanded succour.
"Upon my word, she looks like a piece of Greek sculpture, and be her father whom he may, there is no better blood than beats there at her little dimpled wrists. The pencilling of the eyebrows is simply perfect."
He spoke inaudibly, and just then she stirred and turned. As she moved, something white fluttered from one of the ruffled pockets of her apron, and fell to the floor. He picked it up and saw it was the letter he had given her some hours before. The sheet was folded loosely, and glancing at it, as it opened in his hand, he saw in delicate characters: "Oh, my baby,—my darling! Be patient and trust your mother." An irresistible impulse made him look up, and the beautiful solemn eyes of the girl were fixed upon him, but instantly her black lashes covered them.
For the first time in years he felt the flush of shame mount into his cold haughty face, yet even then he noted the refined delicacy which made her feign sleep.
She made no movement.
"Child, I know you are awake. Do you suppose I would stoop to read your letter clandestinely? It dropped from your pocket, and I have seen only one line."
She put out her slender hand, took the letter, and answered:
"My mother writes me that you are her best friend, and I intend to believe that all you say is true."
"Do you think I read your letter?"
"I shall think no more about it."
"I will paint her as I see her, Ten times have the lilies blown Since she looked upon the sun, Face and figure of a child,— Though top calm, you think, and tender, For the childhood you would lend her."
"Indeed, Peyton, you distress me. What can be the matter? I heard you walking the floor of your room long after midnight, and feared you were ill."
"Not ill, Elise, but sorely perplexed. If I felt at liberty to communicate all the circumstances to you, doubtless you would readily comprehend and sympathize with the peculiar difficulties that surround me; but unfortunately I am bound by a promise which prevents me from placing all the facts in your possession. Occasionally ministers involuntarily become the custodians of family secrets that oppress their hearts and burden them with unwelcome responsibility, and just now I am suffering from the consequences of a rash promise which compassion extorted from me years ago. While I heartily regret it, my conscience will not permit me to fail in its fulfilment."
An expression of pain and wounded pride overshadowed Mrs. Lindsay's usually bright, happy face.
"Peyton, surely you do not share the unjust opinion so fashionable nowaday, that women are unworthy of being entrusted with a secret? What has so suddenly imbued you with distrust of the sister who has always shared your cares, and endeavoured to divide your sorrows? Do you believe me capable of betraying your confidence?
"No, dear. In all that concerns myself, you must know I trust you implicitly,—trust not only your affection, but your womanly discretion, your subtle, critical judgment; but I have no right to commit even to your careful guardianship some facts which were expressly confided solely to my own."
He laid his hand on his sister's shoulder, and looked fondly, almost pleadingly, into her clouded countenance, but the flush deepened on her fair cheek.
"The conditions of secrecy, the envelope of mystery, strongly implies something socially disgraceful, or radically wicked, and ministers of the Gospel should not constitute themselves the locked reservoirs of such turbid streams."
"Granting that you actually believe in your own supposition, why are you so anxious to pollute your ears with the recital of circumstances that you assume to be degrading, or sinful?"
"I only fear your misplaced sympathy may induce you to compromise your ministerial dignity and consistency, for it is quite evident to me that your judgment does not now acquit you in this matter—whatever it may be."
"God forbid that, in obeying the dictates of my conscience, I should transgress even conventional propriety, or incur the charge of indiscretion. None can realize more keenly than I that a minister's character is of the same delicate magnolia-leaf texture as a woman's name,—a thing so easily stained that it must be ever elevated beyond the cleaving dust of suspicion, and the scorching breath of gossiping conjecture. The time has passed (did it ever really exist?) when the prestige of pastoral office hedged it around with impervious infallibility, and to-day, instead of partial and extenuating leniency, pure and uncontaminated society justly denies all ministerial immunities as regards the rigid mandates of social decorum and propriety,—and the world demands that, instead of drawing heavily upon an indefinite fund of charitable confidence and trust in the clergy, pulpit-people should so live and move that the microscope of public scrutiny can reveal no flaws. Do you imagine I share the dangerous heresy that the sanctity of the office entitles the incumbent to make a football of the restrictions of prudence and discretion? Elise, I hold that pastors should be as circumspect, as guarded as Roman vestals; and untainted society, guided by even the average standard of propriety, tolerates no latitudinarians among its Levites. I grieve that it is necessary for me to add, that I honour and bow in obedience to its exactions."
The chilling severity of his tone smote like a flail the loving heart, which had rebelled only against the apparent lack of faith in its owner, and springing forward Mrs. Lindsay threw her arms around her brother's neck.
"Oh, Peyton! don't look at me so sternly, as if I were a sort of domestic Caiaphas set to catechise and condemn you; or as if I were unjustly impugning your motives. It is all your fault,—of course it is,—for you have spoiled me by unreserved confidence heretofore, and you ought not to blame me in the least for feeling hurt when at this late day you indulge in mysteries. Now kiss me, and forget my ugly temper, and set it all down to that Pandora legacy of sleepless curiosity, which dear mother Eve received in her impudent tete-a-tete with the serpent, and which she spitefully saw fit to bequeath to every daughter who has succeeded her. So—we are at peace once more? Now keep your horrid secrets to yourself, and welcome!"
"You persist in believing that they must inevitably be horrid?" said he, softly stroking her rosy cheek with his open palm.
"I persist in begging that you will not expect me to adopt the acrobatic style, or require me to instantly attain sanctification per saltum! You must be satisfied with the assurance that you are indeed my 'Royal Highness,' and that in my creed it is written the king can do no wrong. There, dear, I am not at all addicted to humble pie, and I have already disposed of a large and unpalatable slice."
She made a grimace, whereat he smiled, kissed her again, and answered very gently:
"Will you permit me to put an appendix to your creed? 'Charity suffereth long, and is kind; is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.' My sister, I want you to help me. In some things I find myself as powerless without your co-operation as a pair of scissors with the rivet lost; I cannot cut through obstacles unless you are in your proper place."
"For shame, you spiteful Pequod! to rivet your treacherous appeal with so sharply pointed an illustration! Scissors, indeed! I will be revenged by cutting all your work after a biased fashion. How would it suit you, reverend sir, to take the rivet out of my tongue, and repair your clerical scissors?"
"How narrowly you escaped being a genius! That is precisely what I was about proposing to do, and now, dear, be sure you bid adieu to all bias. Elise, I received a letter two days since, which annoyed me beyond expression."
"I inferred as much, from the vindictive energy with which you thrust it into the fire, and bored it with the end of the poker. Was it infected with small-pox or leprosy?"
She opened her work basket, and began to crochet vigorously, keeping her eyes upon her needle.
"Neither. I destroyed it simply and solely because it was the earnest request of the writer, that I should commit it to the flames."
"Par parenthese! from the beginning of time have not discord, mischief, trouble—been personified by females? Has there been a serious imbroglio since the days of Troy without some vexatious Helen? Now don't scold me, if in this case I conjecture,—He? She? It?"
"The letter was from a mother, pleading for her child, whom I several years ago promised to protect and to befriend. Subsequent events induced me to hope that she would never exact a fulfilment of the pledge, and I was unpleasantly surprised when the appeal reached me."
"Let me understand fully the little that you wish to tell me. Do you mean that you were unprepared for the demand, because the mother had forfeited the conditions under which you gave the promise?"
"You unduly intensify the interpretation. My promise was unconditional, but I certainly have never expected to be called upon to verify it."
"What does it involve?"
"The temporary guardianship of a child ten years old, whom I have never seen."
"He? She? It?"
"A girl, who will in all probability arrive before noon to-day."
The rose-coloured crochet web fell into her lap, and deep dissatisfaction spread its sombre leaden banners over her telltale face.
"I regret it more keenly than you possibly can; and, Elise, if I could have seen the mother before it was too late, I should have declined this painful responsibility."
"Too late? Is the woman dead?"
"No, but she has sailed for Europe, and notifies me that she leaves the little girl under my protection."
"What a heartless creature she must be to abandon her child."
"On the contrary, she seems devotedly attached to her, and uses these words: 'If it were not to promote her interest, do you suppose I could consent to put the Atlantic between my baby and me?' The circumstances are so unusual that I daresay you fail to understand my exact position."
"I neither desire nor intend to force your confidence; but if you can willingly answer, tell me whether the mother is in every respect worthy of your sympathy."
"I frankly admit that upon some points I have been dissatisfied, and her letter sorely perplexes me."